Despite premature obits, e-mail still integral to Web publishing

By many accounts, e-mail died and was buried a year or two ago. Cause of death: suffocation by spam.

Overseas, there have been “dire predictions about the future of e-mail” from England to Korea, where e-mail is “being shaken from its roots” by a younger generation that has moved on to instant messaging, text messaging and other, hipper means of telecommunicating. In the United States, e-mail was “about to vanish” in 2002 and “in the coffin” by 2003. By 2004, when a PC Magazine column entitled “The Death of E-mail” asked whether it had become “useless,” most of the 100-plus readers who responded offered a resounding yes.

The news about e-mail’s demise has spread everywhere, it seems, except into online newsrooms, where e-mail newsletters remain an important – and growing – part of the overall electronic publishing mix.

Consider, for instance, the New York Times. There are now 8 million subscribers to the various digital newsletters disseminated through e-mail by the Times, compared with 1.1 million weekday subscribers to the print paper. Customized selections of daily headlines are e-mailed to 3.1 million people a day.

Additionally, the e-mail products generate a “significant” share of New York Times’ digital properties revenue, which topped $53 million in the first half of 2004, before the company reorganized its financial reporting and began aggregating some online and print results. Jason Krebs, vice president for sales and marketing at declared, “By no stretch is e-mail going away.” For a newspaper’s online publishing operation, e-mail newsletters “have great features and functionality, if you use them wisely.”

“E-mail is still the ‘killer ap’ for the Internet,” as far as Michael Odza, the Web publisher of Santa Fe’s New Mexican, is concerned. The New Mexican, which has a circulation of 25,000, has 48,000 registered users for its Web site, and 11,000 of them have opted to receive an e-mailed version of the daily front page.

That’s not a number that could reel in many ad dollars. “Local advertisers in our market have been reluctant to experiment” with e-mail ads anyway, said Odza in an e-mail interview. But the daily e-mail has helped draw traffic to the paper’s lively Web site, where the number of comments posted by readers has jumped from 50 to 200 a day in the last year. has just one all-purpose daily e-mail newsletter, compared with 10 at, another Web-only publication. And CNET Networks’ sites boast a portfolio of 135 active newsletters, including, ZDNet, and Tech Republic.

But Max Garrone, vice president of’s operations, regards the newsletter as “one of the main avenues for our readership to see what Salon is publishing.” The editors are now looking into launching other newsletters for specific subsets of its audience, such as readers of the politics blog War Room or fans of particular columnists.

“We continue to receive a steady stream of newsletter sign-ups so we’re not seeing the spam deterrent effect yet,” said Garrone, commenting by e-mail. “It drives a good amount of traffic to our site, but it’s also a nice branding device for Salon because our newsletter subscribers get a reminder that we’re out here and of what we’re doing daily.”

Spam’s toll

Though e-mail newsletters have continued to do well for many publishers long after e-mail was left for dead by the techno-cognoscenti, the ever increasing flow of spam that continues to flood in-boxes, despite all efforts to date to turn off the tap, has clearly taken a toll.

“Several years ago people might have thought e-mail would become huge” for Web publishers, said Michael Zimbalist, president of the Online Publishers Association. “You know what, it hasn’t become huge. A contributing factor in that has been the overflow of spam, which has cooled users’ interest in getting a lot of e-mail and has created a certain amount of resistance on the part of publishers and advertisers to go wild with it.”

According to Borrell Associates Inc., an interactive media consulting firm, plenty of money was spent – about $1.7 billion — on e-mail marketing last year. But 90 percent of that was spam, “blasted out to people who don’t want it,” said president and CEO Gordon Borrell. In other words, the sort of e-mail marketing that is muddying the field for legitimate publishers.

Yet despite the glut of spam, legitimate publishers’ e-mail newsletters are still finding their way to lots of readers who want them. “Newspapers’ e-mail messages are considered the gems among the muck of all the unsolicited inbox clutter that everyone’s receiving, because people are opting in, they’re requesting messages,” explained Rob Runett, director of electronic media communications for the Newspaper Association of America. “E-mail messages sent by the newspaper’s online operation have become tremendous advertising and marketing tools.”

Borrell agrees, to a point. “I think newspapers do indeed operate from an advantage in being a consumer advocate in some way, an unbiased source of information,” he said. “But we have found that the successful e-mails are those than contain damned compelling information. You want to provide the kind of information that when the user does not receive it he’s going to complain. Overall, I think newspapers are doing okay in that area. They’re not doing great. They’re still exploring.

“Their big competitor is advertisers,” Borrell added. “I wouldn’t discount the strength of an advertiser’s e-mail going directly to their customers. They get your e-mail address when you buy something from them.” Their follow-up marketing messages offer “something that’s going to help you save money based on a previous habit that you’ve had, whether it’s going into a store, buying a ticket, something like that. That’s pretty compelling information. I welcome US Air e-mails even though I know it’s biased. But I don’t think I’m going to complain if it doesn’t get to me. People will complain if they don’t get their Lhasa Apso newsletter.”

RSS alternative

Web publishers can produce newsletters targeted to subsets of their audiences, and many do, perhaps none more prolifically than CNET Networks, which has 9 million opt-in subscribers for its 135 newsletters.

“In terms of spam, we do not think that this deters people from signing up to receive content that they want and value from a source they trust, and this includes our e-mail newsletters,” observed Sarah Cain, a spokeswoman for the network. “Our subscription rates have remained stable, and we employ some of the strictest list management policies in the industry to ensure that our e-mail lists are clean and that we are only sending our newsletters to the readers who want to receive them.”

The niche e-mails are good advertising platforms because “they enable marketers to connect directly with engaged readers,” Cain added. “And our subscribers spend a good portion of their days in their e-mail inbox, making e-mail a required element of any effective marketing program, and our newsletters a great option.”

To be sure, e-mail is no longer the only way to target a narrow audience online, noted Andrew Nachison, director of the Media Center, a think tank in Virginia.

“There are now other opportunities to deliver targeted advertising, so from an advertiser’s standpoint, that’s no longer as important a differentiator for e-mail distribution,” he said. “Publishers that collected registration and user data can also target advertising to visitors to their web site. They may come from a variety of channels, including links from e-mails but also RSS feeds, so the targeting can really be done as effectively online as can a push product.”

By many accounts, RSS should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the spam fatigue that has turned off many readers to e-mailed news updates. But RSS is only slowly gaining adherents, by the account of some Web publishers. CNET is still in the process of rolling out RSS feeds, but they won’t supplant the e-mail versions.

“Our e-mail newsletters will continue to be an important service. But we also plan to make our newsletter content available via RSS feeds in the coming weeks,” Cain said in comments e-mailed in mid March. “By offering both options, we are giving our readers a choice in how they want to receive our content.”

Salon currently offers two RSS feeds compared with its one newsletter. Garrone can certainly see the advantages of RSS feeds, which “have the potential to supplant newsletters because they don’t get lost among all the spam that crowds our in-boxes, are relatively easy to set up, are truly on-demand information sources and give the end user a really nice index of all the information sources that interest them.” But Salon’s readers are still showing decided preference for the e-mail newsletter, so far.

“We think e-mail newsletters will remain important because e-mail is an almost ubiquitous application,” said Garrone. “Everyone in our audience already has at least one account and is familiar with the format so we don’t have to introduce a technology.” That isn’t the case with RSS, which probably accounts for its slow adoption. “We fully expect some of our readers to use our RSS feeds more aggressively in the future, but the adoption rate has been rather anemic so far,” said Garrone.

At the New York Times, Krebs said it’s “too soon to tell whether RSS is going to replace anything,” because so far it hasn’t reached much deeper than the “fringe” of early adopters. RSS is already generating impressive numbers of click-throughs to the heavily-trafficked New York Times Web site. In January, set an all-time record for pageviews when 16.4 million unique visitors opened 553 million pages. The Web site’s RSS feeds, available since February 2002, generated a record 4.5 million, or 0.8 percent, of those pageviews. The various e-mail products generate over 30 million pageviews per month.

Online news consumers in Seattle appear to be migrating to RSS more rapidly. Lee Rozen, general manager of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Web publishing operations, said the paper’s e-mail newsletters “are being outpaced both by RSS downloads and RSS click-throughs.” In February, for instance, click-throughs to the Web site from e-mail newsletters constituted 0.3% of site pageviews, while click-throughs from RSS feeds constituted 1 percent of all pageviews. But Rozen said that perhaps the paper’s e-mail newsletters could do better. “Poor marketing of the newsletters on our part is the main deterrent to sign-ups based on what we know about the level of sign-ups at related sites,” she said, “We continue to get new e-mail newsletter registrations.”

E-mails as ad platforms

By the account of the small random sample of Web publishers who responded to questions for this story, e-mail newsletters are highly effective in bringing traffic to Web sites but have achieved more modest results as advertising platforms.

“Our e-mail newsletter provides a very nice complement to advertising campaigns on our site. Generally newsletter ads have good click-through rates and reinforce an advertiser’s reach across our audience and site,” reported’s Garrone.

The’s newsletter products “are good, not great” as advertising vehicles, Kreb conceded. “When there’s the right need, a certain deadline for a marketing campaign, a need for a call-to-action with a large-scale reach effort in a short period of time, they’re very effective. And in certain small niches, they can be very effective for longer campaigns.”

But the most lucrative e-mail products are exclusively advertiser driven, with no editorial content, sent to those who opt-in to receive special offers. The newspaper’s Web site offers three — Sophisticated Shopper, Great Getaways and Ticket Watch — with well over 300,000 subscribers each, said Krebs. “They move product and put people in theater seats, and that’s very easily measurable from an online to an offline transaction.”

Chris Jennewein, director of Internet operations for the Union Tribune Publishing Co. in San Diego, has seen similar results. “E-mail is a good business. It’s not more than 5 percent of our total business at this point. But it’s certainly a good business.” News-oriented e-mail newsletters “have been pretty good advertising vehicles, but what are better are advertising-only messages, for example, where a restaurant has an entire e-mail to itself.”

Brigid Kenney, general manager of Tribune Interactive, reported by e-mail that advertiser interest in the array of e-mail newsletters produced by the company’s stable of papers is “still lagging as it takes scale to interest advertisers. But we expect this to improve as we continue to sign up more users.”

Tribune Interactive, like some of the other online publishers, has found that direct advertisements by e-mail have turned into “quite a lucrative business.” Those programs are operating in full compliance with spam regulations, with transparent opt-in and opt-out procedures. “We find that this vehicle still works well for advertisers, with acceptable open, click-through and acquisition rates,” said Kenney.

Borrell warned that newspapers, which can get e-mails through the clutter of spam in part because they are trusted as consumer advocates, run the risk of sending mixed messages if the e-mail too many purely commercial offers. “It kind of confuses consumers,” he said.

But Runett, of the Newspaper Association of America, insisted that prudent use of ad mail will prevent any consumer backlash. “The key thing that newspapers need to do is make sure they have extremely well-written subject lines and messages of high value. And the ad messages should be content focused and targeted to the particular audience.” If the offers are well-considered, “I would definitely recommend that the newspaper name should be part of subject line,” Runett said.

About Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, has written for publications ranging from the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic Monthly to Islands and the Thai International Airlines inflight magazine. He is author of a biography of an eccentric journalist and Indian rights activist named Charles Fletcher Lummis, who lived in Los Angeles from the 1880s through the 1920s. Thompson earned a law degree in 1983 but has been a writer ever since.